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Commentary: Landscape Plan Transforms UTD, Spreads to Richardson

by Joan Davidow 10 Jun 2011 1:18 PM

Thanks to a gift from Margaret McDermott and a plan from Nasher landscape architect Peter Walker, UTDallas campus has a new look — and 5,000 new trees.


INTRO: From a former cotton field to a new forest on the University of Texas at Dallas campus, ever-greening a dry, flat public landscape has transformed the north Dallas flatlands and generated a tree program way beyond its initial planting. Joan Davidow, director emerita of Dallas Contemporary, has more in this commentary that aired this morning on KERA FM.

  • Listen to the commentary:

Joan Davidow: When I moved to north Dallas in 1981, I was assailed by the concrete environment and missed Florida’s tall green pines. Where was the green to soften the city’s hardness?

The same question came up ten years earlier when the McDermotts traveled a one-lane road along the cotton fields of far north Dallas to view the future site of University of Texas at Dallas. Eugene excitedly praised the setting, while Margaret queried, “But where are the trees?”

UTDs early buildings were “unplanned and shabby,” says Provost Hobson Wildenthal. The 1970s brutalist buildings (modernist monumental architecture of raw, unfinished concrete) seemed perfect for a campus dedicated to training engineering students.

But now thanks to a $30 million gift and UTD’s patron saint Margaret McDermott, the campus glows in green. She followed the late Ray Nasher’s suggestion to engage the Nasher Sculpture Center’s landscape architect Peter Walker.

Walker’s plan is bursting this season. His stunning creation plants 10 acres of UTD’s huge campus with 5,000 new trees. The plan features a large stand of irregular native planting, yet I just wish for greater commitment to eco-friendly plants. Mixed with the allees of trees, I want to see native grasses and ground covers of a waterless landscape, so we can build and preserve the environment simultaneously.

My wishes for xeriscaping shrivels compared to Walker’s transformative design giving the campus a grand new entry and a gathering place: elegant magnolia trees, low reflecting pools, and a huge terraced pavilion laced with misting water. Life-sized outdoor chessboards honor UTDs acclaimed chess team. President David Daniel knows it’s a success, now that a student has asked to marry on the mall!

UTDs plantings have nurtured a tree-planting commitment by the City of Richardson. While jogging along a treeless mile two summers ago, Richardson councilman Amir Omar dreamed up Richardson’s Tree the Town plan that will plant 50,000 trees in the next 10 years. Mr Omar’s vision has expanded: He’s paired the Texas Tree Foundation with 40 north Texas cities committing to plant 3 million trees in the next 10 years. And new to me, in 2002, TXU initiated another commercial tree planting effort and has planted 160,000 trees across Texas, recently adding 25 to Eastfield College.

40 years after her first glimpse of the property, Margaret McDermott has brought trees to UTD. The greening softens the hard concrete exteriors and has sparked the largest tree-planting program in America!

  • susan a vallon

    I think the plantings, with their regular spacing and military apperarance is boring and unimaginitve.
    Where is the rule that says all trees must line up? Why can’t a more meandering sensibility and a more natural setting be used instead of this rigid row of sameness? Susan Vallon, Designer, Washington, D.C.

  • Jerome Weeks

    Actually, the university campus was already laid out pretty much as a grid and Walker hardly had a mandate to demolish and re-arrange entire buildings. Initially, all he’d been asked to do was improve a barren open space near the central library. That he ended up planting 5,000 trees and adding whole waterways is remarkable. If you click on the link included above, you’ll see in that report that along the way, Walker ‘rediscovered and emphasized the creeks on campus. He devised a roundabout drive near the entrance to the main campus to help direct traffic to the appropriate lots and away from the pedestrian center.” In fact, Joan mentions “a large stand of irregular native plantings.” Part of the ‘more natural, meandering’ layout you demand can actually be seen on the top of the lower image, above.

    I think if you were to see what was originally in all of these squared-off spaces between a great many squared-off buildings — mostly just vast stretches of sun-cooked concrete — you might appreciate what Walker has brought to UTD.

  • Marc Kivel

    While I appreciate your comments, Mr. Weeks, I’d say that Ms. Vallon’s critique is still valid. We live in an area where the Great Eastern forest plays out into prairie…there’s no good reason that trees should be expected to “fit in” to a pre-existing grid…talk about playing to preconceptions of engineers as linear and unimaginative!

    For example, you mention the rediscovery of campus creeks in the current landscape plan: from my studies of the area all of those creeks should have a very natural growth of forest around them yet I do not see that on campus. I do see structured waterways which are unnatural and only emphasize the presumption that man knows better than nature how terrain should be utilized. How very pseudo-engineer-ish…what chutzpah!

    I grant that the architecture of the campus is challenging, but frankly a permaculturist rather than a landscape architect might have given the campus a more relevant “greening” than creating yet another urban campus where the landscape is just a backdrop to get from hither to thither. Bravo for once again praising a philanthropist-approved but uninspired solution to a local design opportunity.


  • JasonMN

    The appreciation for irregular, “natural” forms is very English, as vs. the French style of regular forms. It seems that UTD is following more the French model. Interesting!

    Images of trees planted in regular allees in France:

    English garden vs. French garden: